It is the week of the Big Game and some of the players, conduits to the head coach—which means they are close to the boss—are exhorting the unchosen. Black studs as well as white dudes—Field Hands and Animals, The Boomer calls them—are banging on the metal lockers, stomping on the concrete floor, shouting, "Whoo-e-e, we're going to do it! Yeah! We're going to win! Right on!"
The Boomer, a mountainous figure in a room full of oversized men, looks up from his stool as The Golfer takes over. Now let's hear from the noncombatants, thinks The Boomer, who sees quarterbacks (and kickers) as the pretty people—golfers.
The Golfer breaks it down for the Field Hands and Animals, ends up passionately repeating his theme—"It's the game of a lifetime and that's the way we gotta play it. Like no tomorrow, right?"
The Boomer evaluates the speech, granting more credit for emotionalism than for originality—not up to Churchill's on-the-beaches pitch, but not bad for a semiliterate. His generosity comes to a quick end when The Golfer turns to him as if for support.
September 17, 1972
"Heavy," responds The Boomer, stifling a yawn and making it plain he is staying aloof.
The din and the frenzy make him uneasy. They got to be kidding, The Boomer says to himself. But he knows they are not.
The following day the chosen are at it again. Using lockers as tympani they bang and shout, "Coaches out of the room! Coaches out of the room!" The gospel is reiterated. "WIN! WIN! WIN!" Then a Catholic priest, the team padre, recites the lyrics from the theme song of Man of La Mancha—The Impossible Dream. The Boomer hums along. His accompaniment draws glares and a few indulgent shrugs. The following day a former boxing champion gives the squad a personal account of beating heroic odds.
The Boomer tries to figure the next act. "Damn, it's got to be a hooker," he says. Nobody laughs. Instead there is an embarrassed silence, as though a dirty joke had been told at the parsonage dinner table. Later, after practice, the coach puts his arm around The Boomer's shoulders. The gesture makes both men uncomfortable. "Son, I'd like you to talk it up," he requests. "It's important to some of the players that they hear it from you." The Boomer muses, A voice for the black field hands. Something for everybody. A message from the pits. Now ain't that nice? "Groovy," The Boomer says out loud, "but it's not my thing, coach." As he turns abruptly away, The Boomer thinks, There it is again. This dude has a problem. He has an obsession to be a father figure. Why the hell can't he leave it alone?
Finally, the coach gets to The Boomer. The night before the crucial game he comes to The Boomer's room and appeals to his professional pride. This, the most important game of the coach's career, rests on The Boomer's giant shoulder pads. The critical match-up is between The Boomer, the best offensive tackle in football, and an All-Pro defensive end. A classic football struggle. Another example, of course, of lousy dialogue, The Boomer told himself, but he bought the pitch anyway. The old shrewdie touched The Boomer's soft spots—his professionalism, his pride. Until three in the morning The Boomer ran game films, watching his opponent flicker across the wall in endless pursuit of quarterbacks. As he waited impatiently for sleep The Boomer felt a sense of self-betrayal. The following day The Boomer won his personal battle, but the team lost.
In the time since, The Boomer, Oakland Raider Right Tackle Bob Brown, perpetual All-Pro, has found his thoughts often returning to this particular week. He sees it as a chronicle of football's dark madness. To Brown the pro game has become a theater of the absurd, with a script that makes M*A*S*H Rotarian. "It's not just me, a lot of players are turned off by the corny clichés, the senseless playacting and the silly posturing," says Brown with extraordinary intensity. "These same men will curse the caste system and damn the inequities but will go full speed ahead with the insane program. It's easier, you see. But The Boomer can't swing that way."
The inability to swing along with owners and management—Barracudas, Brown calls them—has brought him into direct confrontation with football's shibboleths. It has also put him eyeball to eyeball with the Barracudas, and that should be enough to cool off any firebrand, even The Boomer. Instead, in 1971 he told Bill Barnes, then president of the Rams, and his assistant, Jack Teele, that he wanted to be paid superstar wages, not supertackle pay but money in line with what Quarterback Roman Gabriel got. Barnes protested that this was unrealistic. Gabriel was the glamour figure who put points on the board, drew fans into the park.
"Well, then," countered Brown, "maybe The Boomer won't block his fool head off, and then we'll see if Gabriel can put those pretty points on the board." Barnes pleaded that he was offering more money than Brown ever made. "It isn't enough and certainly not what I'm worth," said Brown, ending the negotiations.
Just two years before he locked horns with Barnes, Brown went head to head with Pete Retzlaff. Retzlaff had just succeeded Joe Kuharich as general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Brown was one of the few Kuharich loyalists on the team. The disagreement might have been settled, but The Boomer never asked for an explanation or tried to explain. Instead, he told Retzlaff to trade him because he was packing. The Boomer was done with Philadelphia.
This impulsive act could have been programmed. The Boomer is a man with a short fuse and strong impulses, a combination that has tended to magnify his peccadilloes. In a game in Philadelphia, The Boomer graphically lectured his quarterback for running away from his pass protection. But then he has no confidence in the football savvy of most quarterbacks. "Play-calling is supposed to have a grand design," says Brown. "One play should set up another. Well, I've been party to 1,000 plays that set up nothing and went nowhere. Only once has a quarterback told me he was calling a particular play so he could come back with another. That was Don Meredith in the Pro Bowl game."
Not surprisingly, then, The Boomer has become a gypsy supertackle. He has moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to Oakland. As a result of his travels he has become a pure professional as well as a pure cynic. "I discovered all they had to do was change the wings on my helmet to horns, and I was a Ram," he says. "Then they pulled off the horns and put on a funny guy with an eye patch, and immediately I'm a Raider. When I arrived in L.A. I was startled to find that the crossblock was the same as the crossblock between guard and tackle in Philadelphia. Oakland has the same play, too, just a different name. So the game's the same wherever you go. Only the names change. It's a job. I could punch a clock in and out of the locker room. If the Chinese can get together enough yuan, then I'll slap a sampan on my helmet and be a Yangtze Tiger."
The Boomer's outlook is strictly his own and a put-down, but it is not a rejection of football. Far from it. For the pro game is his milieu. More to the point, it is The Boomer's badge of distinction, and he wears it like some men display their Phi Beta Kappa keys. His jersey number is on the license plate of his saddle-brown Eldorado—BOB-76. And for those who are unable to grasp the obvious, to visualize the blocking pads strapped to his oversized frame, he will announce: "I'm Robert Stanford Brown, professional right tackle," as he did recently in Jack Varney's custom-shirt shop when a snappily dressed middle-aged man gave him the you-look-familiar routine.
What is it then? The sociopsychological love-hate prattle does not fit. With good reason people find Brown difficult to fathom, especially those in football. They tend to look upon him as an uppity black eccentric or else dismiss him as a blankety-blank militant.
Yet Robert Stanford Brown is no bearded radical, no Sacco-Meggyesy. Instead, he is one of a kind, an original. "He's The Boomer," explains Raider teammate Ron Mix. "Everything about him is overblown, you see, he is bigger than life. His size, his enormous talents, his intelligence and his sensitivity. People don't know how to take him, so they tend to overreact, especially coaches and owners."
Brown looks as if he came out of central casting to play Othello. There is the magnificent head, the anguished eyes and the commanding presence. But if Brown is a Shakespearean character, he is a mixed-up one. He only looks like the Moor. In fact, he is pure Hamlet, full of self-doubts, painful brooding and endless introspection. His huge frame, 6'5", 280 pounds of muscle layered on muscle, camouflages torturous internal debates.
There must be something more to life for The Boomer than football—but what? he asks. The question is academic. It was football that lifted Brown out of the Black Belt of Cleveland and enabled him to escape the heat of the ghetto as well as its poverty. At the University of Nebraska, where he was an All-America in 1963, Brown did not just train for the pros. For the first time he had a chance to study white society up close, and he put the opportunity to good use. He polished his diction, joined ROTC and earned a degree in biology. Biology? He became an achiever, an over-achiever by the standards of most football players. Midway through college he discovered football players took only enough courses to stay eligible, not to graduate in four years. The Boomer decided he had to make it in regulation time for the same reason he took biology. Jocks, especially black jocks, were not supposed to be serious students. Although it meant taking as many as 19 hours a week, Brown earned a Bachelor of Science degree in four years. Then, even before he reported to the Eagles' rookie camp, he started on his master's in education administration at the University of Pennsylvania, and was awarded the degree long before he moved on to the next way station.
His liberal education, his two degrees and his football-funded affluence have given Brown a toehold in both black and white society. More accurately, they have left him straddling the two worlds, not truly a part of either. So although he wears custom-made, $100 alpaca shirts and drives his Eldorado, Brown wants to escape the bourgeois mentality. "The bourgeoisie are bourgeois," he says. "There is no black or white. It's all the same, and I don't want to be part of it." What he would like to do is something "relevant." He wants to put his two degrees to good use in the black community. The Boomer wants to make a contribution, to return to the ghetto in some vital function—but what?
Ah, that is the question. How to contribute? Should he join an organization, and if so which one? And so The Boomer, a medically certified insomniac, stews and churns, bleating, "Sometimes I swear I'm going absolutely mad," ulcerating his ulcer and pressuring his high blood pressure, which he claims is not a result of hypertension. "It's like Wilt's so-called heart attack, which wasn't heart failure but the failure of medicine to understand the black man's unusual metabolism," says Brown. Out of hand, he dismisses all the varieties of black activists—partly because he is a free spirit but primarily because he doubts their purpose and effectiveness. "I don't believe in separatism or a back-to-Africa movement," says Brown, "so where do I go?"
Like the fan, The Boomer finds escape from the issues on the playing field. Every morning in the off-season, before sending his 5-year-old son Robert Stanford Brown II off to a Montessori school in Santa Monica, The Boomer lectures him. "Don't be ordinary, anybody can be that. Excel!" Then, as if to live up to his admonition, Brown heads for the Beverly Hills Health Club for Men, where for the next five hours he follows a routine with unyielding determination. In a roomful of middle-aged businessmen, The Boomer hefts weights. He military-presses 375 pounds, curls 205 and does endless knee extensions with a 100-pound weight strapped on to his left foot. For a finale he goes over to the Coliseum and runs up and down the steps.
In these labors Brown finds surcease from his endless internalizing. Well, not completely. He still manages a few frowns over his son. Should the boy go to a school in the black community where he would get a sense of blackness? Quickly he opts in favor of a superior education and decides that blackness will take care of itself.
"Brown has to be dedicated," says black restaurateur and man-about-Los Angeles Clarence Howard, "because sooner or later I run into all of the athletes out on the town and I've never seen Brown."
"The pressures he puts on himself are unnatural," Mix says. "The whole point of being The Boomer, never being beaten, is unreal. Yet that same drive makes him exemplary in his training routines and playing habits. The Boomer never claims star exemptions when he easily could."
Rather than rest on his laurels, The Boomer must constantly prove his invincibility. Midway through last season Brown's left knee was injured and operated on immediately. A month later, when the Raiders still could have made the playoffs, The Boomer returned to the lineup. The quickness of his recovery is thought to be a pro football record for that kind of injury, and it is, at least, a Raider record. But it was premature. Another operation was needed to correct the further damage done to the knee. The Boomer dismisses those minor impairments. It was just a small matter of pain, and he claims to have an unusually high threshold.
"The moment of The Boomer's obsolescence has not arrived," he states adamantly. As always, The Boomer is not just talking but working, and now the leg is ready. Late last spring he ran five miles seven days a week in Griffith Park. He hates running, and would avoid it if he could, and that bothers him. "It's a wrinkle in my character," he says. To prod himself he thinks about going head to head with Carl Eller of the Vikings. "That's all the inspiration I need," he laughs. "The great defensive ends are 60-minute men. That's the distinction between Eller, Deac Jones, Rich Jackson, Claude Humphrey and the ordinary rushers. These studs are tenacious. They are also bigger, faster, stronger and shrewder. They just keep coming through nonstop."
It is his recollection of a session with Rich Jackson of the Broncos that trimmed The Boomer down. "I just felt I had been going one-on-one with the Southern Pacific all day," he says. "When I walked away I was happy to have gotten a draw." To ensure there will be no more draws, Brown has cut his weight from a high of 315 with the Eagles in 1965-66 to his present 280. Even at his heaviest The Boomer had the speed to pull and lead the Eagle sweeps. The play has not worked for Philadelphia since Brown first changed the emblem on his helmet. But now he believes the additional weight may have increased the strain on his knees, both of which have been operated on twice. So, despite all the running and lifting, he often eats only one modest meal a day.
As a group, offensive tackles are scornful of others in football. The position is bloody, hard work, all of it painful. "On every play, the tackle makes body contact," explains Ron Mix. "Even in practice, when the team is running half-speed, the tackle must slick his head in."
Despite this, offensive tackles remain the unknown soldiers of football. Brown's moment of glory, his great thrill, is when he runs through the goalposts at the beginning of the game. His name is announced, 70,000 people cheer and after that, forget it. Brown and his comrades are invisible men unless they fail. Then it's disaster—the defensive end has got through to dump the quarterback. At this moment the tackle is recognized, but only to be booed.
It was none other than a Colt offensive tackle who cheered in 1965 when first John Unitas, then Gary Cuozzo were knocked out of action. The ingrate allowed how Johnny U. was his friend and he was sorry that he was hurt, but, damn, now people will learn that there was more to the Colts than Unitas and his Golden Arm.
Spoken like a true OT. "We're thought to be mindless hulks, robots," says Brown, who claims general managers and owners are always surprised that tackles can do more than grunt. "It's probably the least desirable position in sport," says Mix, "but at least it's still part of a very special game."
For attention-getting reasons, tackles prefer the running game. Among other things, it gives them a chance to get in a few licks of their own. But runs can be tricky work. Except for the straight-ahead plays, which merely require the tackle to smash his head or shoulder into the man across the line, they can force the tackle to do some fancy stepping. On pitchouts, for instance, the tackle pulls and takes the cornerback. He knifes through and blocks the middle linebacker on traps and hooks the defensive end on the end run. But the most difficult task is handling the middle linebacker. Often it is a search-and-destroy mission.
The passing game, however, is the toughest. "They pay me Grand Theft dough to pass-block and I earn every cent of it," says The Boomer. It seems like a simple, unimpeachable responsibility—and so it is. Essentially the tackle merely has to battle doggedly for a few yards of dirt. But it is an unfair struggle, a handicap contest, and the advantage lies entirely with the defense.
"All the tackle has to do is face the most talented athlete on the field," says Eagle scout Charlie Gauer, who is considered one of the more astute offensive brains in the game. "Often the defensive end is the biggest and strongest player and quick as hell. We recruit savages for this position, then turn them loose to run full bore at the tackle with the license to grab, slap and punch. Meanwhile the tackle, a powerful bloke himself, can't act but must react. The tackle must counter the defensive end's every move, fighting a delaying action for three or four seconds until the pass is in the air."
Inevitably the first move of the defensive end is a smash to the tackle's head—the players call it getting your bell rung—and from there the violence escalates.
"Honest Injuns can't play offensive tackle," says Gauer, and a majority of the active players agree. Contrary to the rules, tackles do grab and hold to protect themselves and the passer. One tackle who chooses to remain anonymous for obvious reasons says, "I couldn't play if I didn't hook and hold."
"Oh, yeah, I grab a fistful of jersey on occasion," says The Boomer, but generally his style does not depend on holding. Mix claims he himself never holds. "I don't want to protest too much, but I've always played within the rules," protests Mix, one of the superb technicians and performers of the 1960s.
In general coaches don't care what a tackle does as long as he stops the rusher. Don't get caught but get the job done is the unwritten law of the trade.
To keep the defensive end at bay, the tackle will try to vary his techniques. The orthodox style is to set up deep and then make contact. At that point the rusher is on a collision course with the passer, so the tackle attempts to block to the outside, forcing the end wider than he wants to go. The tackle's actions are a series of counters, which means he is constantly being slapped and pulled and grabbed as well as bumped.
Occasionally the tackle will try a quick cut, to drive his head into the face of the defensive end, stun him momentarily, then drop back and wait. Sometimes the tackle will set up short and try to handle the rusher before he picks up momentum. If the defensive end tries to go inside, the tackle will attempt to stop him with a running block.
"You try all your routines and pick out the ones that work," says Mix. "Sometimes they all are effective, sometimes none of them are. Lately, it seems the latter is true. It used to be you battled the ends, but now they've recruited so many incredibly strong, fast athletes that they fly by, and you never feel a thing except shame."
Almost all of the time the tackle works alone, doing a solo. Those expressions of teamwork, high-low and double team, are seldom in his playbook. Therefore there is no shifting responsibility for failure. The responsibility for a missed block is his alone. It is painfully obvious that the tackle and not the ball or the playing conditions or a teammate busted the play. This is the reason why players and coaches talk about the inordinate pressure of the job, and that is why many consider offensive tackle the least-desirable position in sport.
"When we're beaten, it's a reflection on our manhood," says Mix. "We've lost a physical battle, unlike a defensive back who loses a footrace or the endless variety of reasonable excuses that can be made for other positions. I try to rationalize my feelings, but when the defensive end gets to the passer, I feel shamed."
No matter how intelligent the tackle may be, he cannot escape the feeling. Continues Mix, "I know it's silly, and I've tried to purge myself, but it's bred into us—big muscular men don't lose fights. So I feel embarrassed."
Caught up in his private struggle, the tackle loses contact with the game. The brilliant play boldly drawn in precise Xs and Os on a pre-game blackboard is as relevant as ticktacktoe. All the tackle is aware of are fists thumping, legs churning and bodies bumping. "It's chaos," says Brown, "a frenzied ball."
In the melee, it's hard for the tackle to keep his cool, but he must. For the coolest, there is a simple dodge. When a tackle is beaten, he gets as far away from the play as possible. The point is to create confusion when the coaches break down the game films. Other than the runaway routine, the tackle can only shout to the quarterback to fend for himself. The so-called lookout block, or early warning system, is of limited use. Passers are not brave souls. They do not want advice but protection.
Occasionally, when the shame is great, even a Brown will lose his cool. In 1966 the Eagles played St. Louis and Brown was matched against Joe Robb, a wily journeyman defensive end. To compensate for the mismatch, the Cards stunted all afternoon, and Brown kept getting caught in the confusion. Midway through the game, The Boomer was in a fury. After several holding penalties on Brown, Robb eluded him and dumped the quarterback. When he did it again The Boomer tried to kick him.
In the five years since, Brown has been all but invincible, yet he almost repeated the debacle in Philadelphia two years ago. In his first time back after being traded to the Rams, The Boomer got into a footrace with Tim Rossovich. For the first quarter The Boomer was in trouble, and again he almost lost control. "Then Jimmy Nettles [the Ram corner-back] came over and told me, 'Settle down, Boomer. Free and easy.' That's what I always tell them. 'Free and easy.' No strain, no pain. I realized Rossovich was running a game on me, and nobody does that. Only The Boomer runs games. So I settled down, and then I was back in control."
As might be guessed, The Boomer's game has its own special quality, generally expressed in direct confrontation. "It's a simple issue of me-him," says The Boomer. "Who's the strongest, who's the most determined, who has the highest threshold of pain and who runs the best trick bag." The premise is to try for a quick encounter, so The Boomer sets up from a unique sprinter's stance very close to the line of scrimmage. He holds his right arm high, blocks the slap and then, like a good puncher, pops his shoulder and punches to the rusher's neck. "If the man comes low there are some choicer areas, like the spleen and liver, that I can hit," says Brown.
Technically the regulations permit The Boomer's riposte, but the rules were not intended to allow this kind of aggression. The Boomer's confession will cause some NFL officials to blanch, but he is not fooling around—he's punching. His bare-knuckle attack is an honest reprisal. By the rules, the defensive end is limited to one slap, and that on the first step. Unfortunately, line judges seem unable to count either the steps or the slaps, and tackles claim they would be punch-drunk if they depended on the rules to protect them.
Around the league solicitous veterans warn rookies, especially big strong college weight lifters, not to run at The Boomer. "The Boomer pulls plenty iron," they say. One high draft choice with misplaced confidence in his strength and a conviction that The Boomer could be had, went head to head with him. "That boy was like a cabbage, all head and no butt, and I ate him," says Brown.
The Boomer looks for these tasty morsels—defensive ends who'll run to his enormous strength. "If it's a pass," he says, "I set close to the line and pin this brave bull right into neutral. His feet are churning, he's grunting like hell and going nowhere. Then I look through the birdcage, give him a kiss and say, 'Sissy.' That plays on his head because I've destroyed his strength, crushed his pride."
Unfortunately for The Boomer, he must deal increasingly with the elite. But neither his battered knees nor the growing number of savvy and savage defensive ends has diminished his ardor for "me-him" confrontations. At the moment The Boomer is happy in Oakland. Raider Boss Al Davis is one Barracuda he might be able to live with. If not? "I'm like a cardsharp, I have to have a game," says Brown. "If I don't play at Oakland, then I'll play somewhere else. I'll keep moving because somebody always needs a professional tackle. Perhaps one day I'll wind up with a carpet slipper on my helmet, and that won't bother me, just as long as the checks don't bounce and they have some big stud for me to bump heads with. Then I'll be happy."